The Next Passing
The Next Passing
© John M. Williams
Entering the Bluebird Café, an early Saturday morning, Aaron surveyed the booths for sisters.
Ah, there’s one. Keeping company with a paperback.
He sat down.
“To those whom God wishes to help he sends a rival,” she read.
She lowered the book, raised an eyebrow.
He slowly nodded. “You’re so right, Carl.”
She set the volume, well-eared and coverless, beside her browned cup. “Do you think God is trying to help Gus?”
“Well—” he sniffed, “it certainly would not appear so.”
Frowning, she looked over his shoulder around the café, bustling with game-day energy, the sidewalk outside oranged with strollers. “Well—I don’t know—is it my fault? It is.”
“What—fault? Does that even apply? What is it—love or war?”
“Both. Well—neither,” she said.
“Okay. See? It’s easy. Gus works in a tire plant. The new guy—”
“Okay—” He narrowed his eyes. “Al?”
“I’ve seen him what—once? Which was enough. Brain surgeon.”
“He’s a neat guy, Aaron.”
“Yes—that too. So there you have it. Brain surgeon, neat guy.”
Her expression took a doleful turn. “Of course, he’s sort of working at the tire plant—”
“You mean Gus—”
She just looked at him. “—till I get through school. Not that we put it in writing or anything.”
“Okay, fine. Dump the brain surgeon and stick with Gus. Now—fast forward a few years—paint a picture—” He suddenly squinted at the menu wedged beside the napkin holder, then snatched it out. “Shit.”
He grunted. TRADITON. “Nothing. Typo.”
Mrs. Sides, what would be called a handsome woman, just sailing into the deeper waters beyond the middle years, stopped at their booth and smiled, a natural beauty mark about cheekbone high, flying her colors. Aaron slipped the menu back. The Marine sergeant-like Mr. Sides, to the casual glance ill-paired with her, in apron and with pencil-speared ear, hustled the busy counter in a sweat. “How’s everything, sweethearts?”
“It’s so extraordinarily good,” Aaron replied, “I’m going to sit here all day savoring the aftertaste and spend only fifty cents.”
“You do that, Sugar. Just scooch way over tight against the wall.”
Ha ha. Around them the referred-to Sports Wall held photographs of heroic young men’s doings.
Mrs. Sides slipped down the line. Aaron absently studied the upside-down paperback title. The Panes of Time.
“What about you, Big Bubba?” Lindsey asked.
“What about me what?”
He let out his breath in a three-step descending lament. “I couldn’t with any honesty be said to have one. Just a few little doxies I’ve got my eye on here and there. No brain surgeons.”
She smiled. “Do you know where Inez went?”
“Went? What do you mean went?”
Lindsey regarded him in surprise. “Well—she’s gone.”
He frowned at her. “Gone where?”
“That’s what I’m asking you. When’s the last time you saw her?”
“I don’t know. In the summer.”
“Well, she moved out. The house is empty. I don’t know where. Fran told me—I thought you knew.”
He shrugged. “No, I didn’t know. Why would I?”
“I mean, come on—somebody who spent most of her teenage years going around to carnivals trying to find information about her parents?”
“I will say it was always June out there—I’ll give her that. Poison ivy and gardenias.” He shook his head sadly. “And now it’s almost October. October.”
“The year is bleeding to death. I’m leaning over it, listening for its last words.”
“Did Mama tell you my car got towed?”
She nodded. “I had to pay fifty dollars. Which I got from Art.”
“See? He’s paying off already.”
“More coffee, Sugar?” asked the waitress, her lips lipsticked on.
“You’re not going to run us out?” The Bluebird was abuzz—out-of towners looking in the windows.
“Not yet.” She poured. Lindsey blocked hers with her hand.
“Did she tell you she’s been dreaming about Daddy?” Lindsey asked.
“Isn’t that weird?”
“No—not really. It’s just very Mama—cutting off the oxygen to any reality she disapproves of—in this case, the tragedy that we can only replay past scenes of those we’ve lost—we can’t make any new.”
“Wouldn’t that be true of everything?”
“Yes,” he conceded. “Eventually.” He cut his eyes to the paperback. “So—are you reading that?”
“Well—sort of. Did you read it?”
He stared at her in surprise. “I couldn’t put it down. Of course, that was a few years back.”
“I’m always the last. Was that your Sleeping Prophet period?”
“No—after that. More like Near-Death Experience.”
“And you haven’t read it since?”
“Well—” he said, “the thing is, once you read that stuff you really can’t read it anymore.”
“Pugh said he reads it every day.”
“Well, yeah—Pugh. Pugh does a lot of things every day most people don’t.”
“He obviously likes it.”
“Well—find something that justifies your life without costing you anything and you’ll like it too.”
“Well yeah, sure—I like it. I just don’t believe it.” His face wrinkled in a frown. “Are they the same thing?”
“No—I believe too many things I don’t like.”
“But I do still think a near-death experience is the most profound experience you can have.”
“I thought it was a hot bath.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Too bad you haven’t had one.”
“A hot death?”
“A near-bath experience.”
“You want to know the truth?” he said. “I don’t want one. It’s better to wonder.”
“What a hot bath would be like?”
“If you already knew what it would be like, you wouldn’t need it.”
“Yes. But you would want it.”
“Well, I don’t want it. I just want to read about other people.”
“You like to watch.”
“I love to watch.” He studied her as she took a sip of coffee and made a face. “Did you ever stop to think that you watch something while it’s happening, but you can only think about it once it’s done?”
“You saying I can’t watch and think at the same time?”
“I’m saying you can’t contemplate a whole until it is one.”
“In the ground?”
“In the air. And which is the more trustworthy reality—the one doomed not to exist, or the one that can’t not exist?”
“That is, is the story, which is not real, more real than the real, which is?”
“Yes.” He looked around. “Take these pictures on the wall—please.”
“Or this splat of ketchup, which is no different.”
“Is it ketchup?” she asked, squinting.
“It’d better be. All the forces of the universe have conspired to give it just this shape and no other. The universe without exactly this shape in it would not be the universe we know.”
“And I would say it’s rather shapely.”
“Exactly! But what’s more impressive about it: its shapeliness, or that it is?”
“If you define what something is as what it suggests rephrasing as.”
“And how would you rephrase yourself?” she asked.
“See—there—you’ve put your finger on it. The only way you know for sure something is real is if it gets laughed at.”
“So the question is—if some other god came in and looked around the universe, would he bust out laughing and go, ‘It’s priceless! I love it!’?”
“I guess we have to hope so. If—as I believe it is—the central intuition of reality is that reality is counterintuitive. You want to hear my dream?”
“Is it set in El Paso?”
“No—it’s different. It was a village—like a little medieval village or something, with these narrow cobblestone streets, and I’m driving this enormous bus that just barely fits on the street, and I’m trying to make these sharp turns—”
“Then I was way up, like a mile high or something, trying to drive it on these two narrow little beams just wide enough for the tires to fit on—”
She looked where he was looking, somewhere between them.
“—like a roller coaster track sort of—but no guard rails or anything—and it’s swaying in the wind—and the bus is heavy and unresponsive, and sometimes it feels like it’s going to fall over backward—” He reared back in his seat.
“Then the carousel.”
“The sad children?”
He slowly nodded. “Going round and round and round—holding on—looking down—”
“You need a vacation, Bubba.”
“Heyla, heyla,” she sang. “Actually, I’ve been thinking about it. Why don’t you just keep the magazine, and the greeting cards, and maybe those little family books, and drop the rest?”
“Because I can’t make any money doing any of those things.”
“Not even the books?”
“Especially not the books. People want twenty copies. I spend two months making one. The only way to make money in this business is long runs. Which is why there aren’t any. And then there’s Dennis.”
“Bubba, face it. You guys just don’t get along.”
He sighed. “I know. But he’s a good pressman. A real good pressman. Do you know what that means? Do you know what I went through trying to find a good pressman? How many I had?”
“He’s a perfectionist. He runs whatever you give him—and it’s always perfect, or he kills himself.”
“Then keep giving him stuff.”
“I can’t keep up. I just can’t seem to get organized. Which means I have to listen to him all day—talking about what a tight ship that goddam place in Johnson City was.”
“Where he’s from?”
“Yes. And where I wish he’d go back. Except then—”
“Why’d he leave?”
“Some woman. Came down here to go to school—he followed her.”
“What happened—she marry a doctor?”
“Well—you don’t owe him anything, do you?”
“No—except every Friday.” He scowled. “And—speaking of unwritten agreements—there was the, I guess, suggestion that we might be partners. When he first came—just talking—I wish like hell I’d kept my mouth shut.”
“Mm,” said Lindsey, and shook her head. “I’m just worried you’re going to deprive us of Al and Sal.”
“Oh well,” he said, “who really appreciates them?”
Now people were waiting impatiently up front. Somewhere west of town an eastbound train whistle sounded. He looked up. “I’ve got to get to work. I’ve got a ton of crap to do. And this traffic.”
She gave her coffee a last try, made a face, spit it cold back into the cup.
“So you figure you’ll marry this guy and all that?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she shrugged. “Maybe.”
On the sidewalk, in a gap between the decked-out waiting people, a little surly that their comfort wasn’t being taken into account, the morning paper said “Islamic Peace Mission Hits a Snag”—but added reassuringly “Oil Experts Expect No Shortage Despite War.” And: “Bomb kills 10 at Oktoberfest.” The unbought Friday local paper still proclaimed: “Three Valley Policemen Dismissed.”
The train blared more insistently, closer. He looked up Main Street, trackward. Passing Sweet Home Design he looked in the window, saw Deke Mullin through the door open to the back, aproned, squeegying. Five thousand tee-shirts, three-color—dull as all hell except when you’re making money. Then not. How did he do it? Mr. Long Run. Aaron waved—Deke couldn’t spare his hands, gave him a nod and a smile back. Making that darn money.
“Police Comb Woods for Missing Boy.”
“Moby Dick Found Dead.”
* * *
He beat the train—but saw its light bearing down as he glanced left over the crossing. Other side of the tracks—strangely it sometimes seemed the real world dreaming the other, sometimes the world being dreamed. Odd worlds. At odds. In any case, only in the afternoon. Early morning energy now, everything hopelessly real—and corrupted by the distaste he felt at the encounter waiting at the shop—a real pisser—it had once been such a cool place, the first year, two years: you felt it when you walked in the door. Money fucks up everything. Or the lack thereof. I was therefore I am.
Bluff Avenue paralleled the tracks a block back, northward, for its three-block run. A few respectable businesses clustered on the east end, where he turned, followed by a few small houses, built just after the war, neat and tidy, the kind with utility trucks parked in the drive late afternoons and a man in a railway cap watering something in a tire—then the sprawling lot of Edmunds Lumber about a third of the way down, and just past it, opposite side, on the high point of the parabolic avenue with suicidal steps to the curb, but hardly a bluff: the tired, brick, double storefront building whose left side looked reasonably presentable with a hanging sign—Back Porch Printers (spent two weeks making that thing and it looks exactly homemade)—but raggedy on the right—Knight’s Salvage on a piece of cardboard in the window. After that, the street markedly deteriorated as one continued west, past the bizarre jungle of Mr. Vickerstaff’s place, then shacks, a trailer park, finally the concrete plant on the far end—but beyond that, around a little doojiggle turn, Highway 99 to Beulah. Home.
Just as he parked, the train came laboring, visible in jigsaw flashes, behind Edmunds Lumber Yard, and let out a virile blast for the Main Street crossing. He pulled beside Dennis’s vinyl rat-top Impala, and Sherry’s Trans Am. Side by side—taking his place—he felt a surge of pique, but intuitively denied himself the luxury. No way the guy is running me. What was it with her? Those looks—but forever moving a step around him, like a floater in the eye. Some kind of dirt-cheap jealousy?—accrues naturally around any situation where there are two of the same kind of anything.
Shored up, he entered the front door which creaked like a horror movie with a jingling bell. Late September—finally a bit cool in there, after the suffocation of summer that the Brontosaurus above the front door, biggest BTU window unit they made, hadn’t been able to dispel. God, the bitching. No sign of them now, of course—only a laugh from the back (at himself, he assumed)—which he ignored. The sound of no machines running, and the guy already there almost an hour. Just the radio playing at medium volume, and the laugh. Deke Mullin. If I could just get to his level, that’s all. Pay the bills—do the magazine.
His desk offered a picture of neurotic orderliness belying its deep deficiencies. End of the month—payroll, sales tax—undone—a dozen potential orders waiting for some initiative, several wedding orders—couldn’t trust Sherry who seemed to seek out the slyest possible ways to err, and he had to do it himself anyway—and the fat stack of accounts payable invoices from which his eye flicked away as fast as from a clot of dried snot on a bathroom stall. A plywood partition separating the front from the back, plastered with yellowing business cards (they had given up the practice some time back) didn’t quite reach the ceiling, nor quite pull off its attempt at perpendicularity, and it was over this bit of unsteadiness that the music and the laughter and the non-machinery leaked.
The morning sun found one side pane of the glass above the abutting door to infiltrate, beaming over the room to the ghostly corner where the layout table, the typesetter, sat like museum pieces. Aaron stopped and looked; even here of all places could moments come with hidden passageways. The light caught only the bottom corner of the display rack holding the newest edition of The Back Porch, already six months old, the unborn one a third formed, its coming to term a matter of considerable uncertainty. A great pity—how the least interesting things devour the most, like crabgrass. I never found the right person. A salesman. One of those colorful backslapping bullshitters. That’s all I needed. Then I could have done anything. On another display rack: the Roads Not Taken Greeting Card Line—those also yellowing. And trespassing on the bottom—specimens of a handful of little books: Fifty Years a Family, All That Glissens, And Slocombes Were They All. Doing those, he loved. End up with something in your hand—hold it, admire it—even if at the rate of (he’d figured it up) six cents an hour. You needed to be where rich people were—like those plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills—not here where people grubbed nickels with you.
Thirty dollars for letterheads! I know where I can get them for twenty-eight! After they’d sucked forty-five minutes poring over the swatches and selected Classic Vellum Cambric Bristol Cream 100% Rag in Blushing Melon which cost you eighteen. Don’t show them all that, Mr. LeMay always said, and if you do, good rule of thumb, on these little jobs, charge three times the cost of your paper—anything else, you’re losing money. If they say no, you’re better off.
Losing money—you’d think you’d feel a bleeding sensation—but it was more just looking around: ain’t got none, can hardly pay the help, accounts payable—flick!
The front door opened—he turned on reflex, like somebody throwing the switch on the protest in permanent residence in his mind: leave me alone!—but it was only Cecil.
“Bout it,” he said, leaning forward with the driving energy that propelled him through the day—really, you would have to say, a driven man, ceaselessly raking the underworld for opportunities. He put his coins in the coke machine, wiped his already sweating face as he waiting for the tumbling can.
“What you up to, Cecil?”
“Working, man. Just working. Trying to get ahead.”
“That’s hard to do.”
“I’m tell you.”
“You going to the game?”
“You want to buy a printing business?”
Cecil got his coke, opened it, took a long drink, then looked around. “Naw man, I don’t need no printing business—all I want, yo half the building.” He took another drink, studied him. “You making pretty good, ain’t you?”
Aaron elvised his lip. “Eh-h.”
Cecil finished his drink, not only taking the can with him but fishing another out of the waste basket beside Aaron’s desk. “Hard all over, man.”
Another stupid thing: the Coke machine. Nothing but a pain in the ass—waste an hour a week counting out quarters and dimes, shooting the shit with the Coke man. Cecil called that one. Let the fool next door do it.
He knew he was stalling. Can’t put if off forever. He pushed through the swinging door and there they were—Dennis, sort of the rawboned type, in his orange hat in the ink corner beside the good Multilith, smoking, Sherry sitting on the prep table swinging her legs—but stopped as the door swung to. She had a maybe pretty sort of face, but that little button nose. Sign of weak character. Dennis too. Too many little noses back here.
“He has arrived!” Dennis announced.
Aaron looked around at the nothing happeningness with a scowl he meant to be withering, but no one seemed withered. “I had breakfast with my sister, if it’s any of your business.”
“It’s not. It’s your business.”
“Doesn’t seem to be too busy—for a business.”
Dennis shrugged melodramatically. “I need plates.”
Aaron stopped, taken aback. “I made about fifteen plates yesterday afternoon.” He looked toward the order line, where plates and flats hung with work orders. Several had been pushed to the back, waiting for something—but three hung idly to the front.
“I ran everything. But the envelopes. And the blue raffle tickets.”
Aaron looked at the other Multilith, set up for envelopes, remembered that it had a torn blanket, a new one ordered three days ago, do a swap when it came in—back to the line, to Dennis, frowning like a cornered chess player.
“You could have run the envelopes on this one.”
Dennis let out an elaborate breath. “Two break-downs and set-ups for one little run? On the only blanket we have? It doesn’t make any sense. I’ll do it with the rest when the blanket gets here.”
“What about the tickets?”
“They’re fast-lake blue. We’ve got, I know, six black jobs waiting—why do you let these bozos talk you into blue ink?—raffle tickets—just use blue paper—but I got no plates. Plus, there’s two other blue jobs—it’s crazy to do a color change for one run. Stupid. Get me plates—I run all the black 81/2 x 11, go to blue, run the tickets and the other jobs, the big one last—then we’ll be set up for blue when the score’s final. Then while we’re waiting, I can go to the Solna and do the Triple-A newsletter.”
“You could have started with that.”
“Need a plate.” He stubbed out his cigarette. Sherry—was that a laugh?
“What about you?” Aaron said to her.
She shrugged. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know what.”
“Well, shit. There’s about ten jobs up there.”
“But I need you to show me what to do.”
He exhaled, closed his eyes for a second—out in the west Texas—desert, something mysterious—opened them. “All right—let’s go look.”
“I’ve been answering the phone.”
Another weary breath. “What? Who? Don’t even tell me.”
She picked up a pad beside her. “Mr. Fritch.”
“Oh shit!” He slapped his head. “What’d he say?”
“He said he’d call back.”
“Goddam it. What else?”
She checked the pad. “Mrs. Perk—Perkin—”
“I guess. She said you promised her—something—yesterday—”
“Her programs? She didn’t bring me the damn picture! I’m waiting on the picture! She said she would bring the picture for the cover by! I’m waiting on that!”
Sherry rocked exaggeratedly back.
“Okay—” He controlled himself. “Sorry. I’ll call her. What else?”
“David—” She squinted at her handwriting. “Odom.”
“David Odom? When’d he call?”
Wasn’t it obvious? “This morning.”
He shook his head, calculating. “What’d he say?”
“He said he’d come by around noon.”
“Nothing. I forgot some stuff. I’ll have to go by my house and get it.” He sighed. “I’ll have to beat the traffic.”
“I need plates,” Dennis interjected.
“I know you need plates. I’m going to make the plates first.”
Dennis indulged himself in a little laugh. “Planning,” he chuckled, then stopped. “Just simple planning. The system we had in Johnson City—”
He stopped—his jaw tightened—then shook his head, reamazed that anyone could bungle something so simple. He took a breath—as long as the energy was up: “You go right by that new lock place.”
“You ought to stop by.”
“I could. I don’t know about today.”
“Why put if off?”
Aaron shrugged, went up front, tried to find something for Sherry to do, realized there really wasn’t anything that he wouldn’t have to half do himself—what was the point? “Why don’t you—get things organized up here or something. Catch the phone.”
Her look lingered an extra fraction of a second. Weird damn girl.
He went back to the light table to finish stripping up the flats, worked fast, took them to the plate burner.
Dennis rolled his eyes—why am I not surprised?—let out a little laugh. “No plates.”
“Three. We’ve got three.” He thought for a second. “Let’s do the letterheads. I’ll call Wink—I can run by there when I go by my house. I’ll get a few to get us by. What the hell is going on with Dixie Type? I ordered them—what? Monday?”
“No, I think it was Monday. Surely to God they’ll come today.”
“Anybody care to bet?”
“Well, anyway—we can do the letterheads.”
Dennis nodded. “Yeah, that’ll take, oh, forty-five minutes.”
“I’ll be back.”
“I’ll make the Solna plate. You can run that.”
“I’d rather save it.”
“Why? What difference does it make?”
“It just makes more sense. Run it after all the little stuff.”
“Beats me why.”
Dennis shook his head, blew out puffing his cheeks. “Save the overkill for last.”
Aaron felt a hot flash of anger—not that he said it, but re-said it. The Solna. A 25-inch press, mediocre register, a dinosaur. Had to have a three-phase circuit put in. Took three times longer to set up than anything they ever ran on it. Like taking a Winnebago to the mailbox. And Jesus had he heard what else he might have done with that six thousand dollars.
Fortunately Dennis decided this time not to remind him. Aaron put the three plates in the burner, flipped the lid, and turned it on. Light like the return of Jesus blazed through the cracks.
“You want to use the Solna, think about that lock place out there,” Dennis said. “You’re talking about a big operation. Have you seen it? It’s huge.”
“I drive by it every day.”
“Well, all right. That’d be one hell of an account. All their office stuff. Instruction sheets, packing slips—God only knows. Black and white. Long runs. I can pretty much bet you Empire has already been out there, wining and dining their asses off.”
“That’s why they’re an Empire. What chance do I have?”
“You’ve got to try. Just—put on a tie maybe. Look like a professional. Go for it. And while you’re out there it wouldn’t hurt to go around to all those places out there in that office park. We need accounts—steady, repeat business.”
“I know, I know. Maybe Monday. I don’t think I’ll have time today.”
Dennis leaned his head back, pulled down his hat, appearing to snooze.
As Aaron was developing the plates the front door bell jingled. He groaned. If people would just leave me alone. He heard Sherry’s voice, the deeper male voice—familiar—who was that?
Sherry came back as he was washing his hands, Dennis elaborately doing nothing. He looked at her.
“It’s that Mayor guy—”
“You know, the truck stop guy.”
“Oh. Victor Mater.”
“Okay. Hold on.” He dried his hands. “He’s the Mayor. What are you doing?”
“Okay, okay.” He hung the towel back on its nail.
“They’re ready,” he said to his slumped pressman as he passed by—pushed through the door, and there indeed stood the honorable Victor Mater.
He was a man about whom every quality—physical, mental, spiritual—seemed thick. A thick man. He smiled and held out his hand. Thickly. “How are you.”
“Very well, thanks.” He glanced out the front window—left, then right. Then he plopped an 8 x 10 on Aaron’s desk. Aaron looked at it: His Thickness in front of City Hall, three-pieced, one foot raised on the fountain ledge, a hand just holding back his jacket at the waist, a steely look in his eye. A Get-Things-Done Man. The Baron of Exit Nineteen.
“One last push,” he said. “Posters, cards, flyers, the works.” He looked at Aaron. Then his eyes darted a little.
“Sure. We’ll—fix you up.”
Victor nodded. “Union bug? Still—”
Aaron shook his head. “No—sorry. We’re too little.”
“That’s all right. You do good work at a reasonable price—that’s all I ask.” Glance over his shoulder. “Can I get these Monday morning?”
Aaron’s eyes widened—he let out a laugh in spite of himself. “Well—I don’t know about that—”
“And look. I’m running on my record. What I want to do—actually, I saw this in another town—I want to put together a little—what do you call it?—brochure that will, uh, put forth some of the things we’ve accomplished. You know that Veterans Memorial out on the Parkway was my baby.”
“Yes—I heard that.”
“The whole thing. I envisioned it—I made it happen.” He stared defiantly at Aaron.
“I just felt we needed a way to honor our men and women in uniform.”
“I’ll give you all the information—think you can write it up—make a little brochure out of it? Put in some pictures—me at my desk, council meeting, whatever.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I think we can do that.”
“We’re in a dog fight, I don’t mind telling you. And I’ve had a lot to learn—I’ll be the first to admit that. But a town is not different from a business—hell, a town is a business—and I think I’ve proved I know how to run a business.” He stared at Aaron.
Aaron nodded. “Yes.”
“And I’m going to continue to run this town like a business.” He stared.
“With competence—” ticking off the points on his blunt fingers—“good management—and love.”
“Why not? And I’ll tell you something. Colonel Mountwell’s been supportive in some ways—and not very supportive in others, to be honest. But nobody tells me what to do. I came into this town twenty-three years ago with seventeen dollars to my name, and now I’m running one of the busiest truck stops in the state—and that’s just a fact. Nobody controls me.” He stared at Aaron—then snuck another glance out the front window.
“We’ll get right on it.”
When he was gone, Aaron sat for several minutes looking out the front window. His eyes, his thoughts made the rounds of all that needed to be done—then, overwhelmed, conceded. He dialed Wink.
In the distance, another train. Westbound.
* * *
Ah. Back in the car—the structured world melting into dream behind him, the real world seeping like some alien music into the void. At the end of Bluff Avenue the face of an old man framed in a helmet paused not looking on a big Honda—left turn, then right. Highway 99.
Tracks on the left—splitting the town like a spinal cord—heading east to something eastern and grimy and finished, but west to the unknown—looked like sutures—if they were pulled out the whole world would unravel.
Funeral Home billboard: “We Buried the Legend.” And a photo of the legend himself, bow tie and Ruthian nose, looking stylishly posthumous.
Past Mama’s—early Saturday morning, like a tomb—a couple of cars, no doubt left from the night before. Hardly any traffic on the highway. Butterflies, bobbing solo, always southward, across the road. Just keep going west, that’s all it took—the more unreal everything back in town became. Out here, the game was just an abstraction, the traffic irrelevant. Not my time of year, Aaron reflected, the world starts to look so tired—starts to lose the illusion of the illusion, and everything dies away like the flesh from a skull and you’re left with the corpse, winter. Only, not yet—the briars and weeds, sumac turning red, along the banked tracks, the dirt crossings, the houses, the little stories in the yards—like something, only out here, that somebody wanted to tell you, but didn’t bother because it told itself.
At home—where, he wasn’t exactly sure—some cranny that had seemed suitable and retrievable at the time—were the receipts for all the equipment—why not keep them in the shop?—well, from now on he would. The Odoms—ran the newspaper—if they were interested were likely interested only in whatever competition he represented (Ha!). Add it all up—something for “good will,” whatever that was—double it? Triple it? Who the hell knew? How serious were they? Try to find out from David. Maybe not sell it. Keep it and by God turn it into what he’d envisioned five years ago. Make it happen. Total overhaul. Hire a salesman. But God, just think—pay off the creditors, get it all off your back, maybe end up with a few thousand, and have all this, the world, back.
He took a deep breath.
The landscape drifted by like somebody humming a baby to sleep. Why was it the most real things were the most exquisitely unreal? Playing the little game with himself—see something along this old many-times-traveled road he’d never seen before. That shed, garage, whatever—at a right angle to the yellow house under the chinaberry tree—maybe looked at it, but never seen it. What did people do in there? He smelled something musty, thought of spiders, put himself there, looking out thinking, well here I am standing in this shed now, looking out. Snakes maybe. Train going by—wave at the engineer, throw rocks at the cars. Funny how your experience of life is the sum of where you look.
Fifty thousand dollars?
Say, twenty thousand in equipment, owe maybe ten—a few decent accounts—five years of your life, don’t forget. Ought to be worth a few dollars and cents. Maybe a hundred thousand. Of course they would never pay that. How much then? Three times the assets? Sixty thousand. What if they offered, say, twenty? You know you’d take it. Probably. I hope they don’t.
Back toward town he heard the train, glanced in his rear-view mirror, then back: Hodson’s Lake. Closed these many years, the diving platforms still standing like abandoned oil rigs, the once sandy beach (trucked in?) reverted to weed, the little concession stand—frozen Zero bars, banana popsicles, Battle of New Orleans blaring over the speakers—Charles knew all the words, start to finish—standing there like something bombed out. Closed it up—when was that, about ’67?—when the Morrow boy drowned. Thirteen years ago—not to mention the ten billion till the sun burned out, and the ten billion before. Same way with everything. Everything you know, love, ever heard of. Like somebody flicking a lighter.
He slowed, pulled over on the side of the road—wild geese waddling on the far bank—miles to go. The road that led down to the lake showed him suddenly, like a flasher, its haunting quality. He got out with his camera—stand right about here, the road tunneling away into mystery, deserted platforms spearing the background, stop it down, unfocus it into dream, almost feel the lonely spirit of the boy: a perfect Roads Not Taken shot. Gone by it a million times, driven down it a million in younger years, never seen it. He bracketed it, took six shots—maybe that’s what I’ll do, what Lindsey said—keep the cards, the magazine—no, that’s crazy, you can’t make it—maybe work for the Odoms? Egad. Has it come to that? He faced off with himself—gave it up, closed his eyes, took a breath. Spicy, coming of fall. What—somewhere out west.
Back at his car the train sounded, much closer—blaring at every two-bit crossing along the highway. He glanced back, still didn’t see it, but could tell it was booking. He started to open his door, waited as a black car passed. Not especially in a hurry. Driver, looking straight ahead. Three men in the back. It swooshed by, he opened the door, the middle face half turned, then quickly turned back. What—
Train very loud. He could see it now. Might have raced it, but no hurry today—anyway, he saw he would never make it. He turned onto the little connector, Church Road, though there was no sign and not even a rumor of a church—three hundred yards to Cemetery Road, which led the mile into Beulah. The triple-headed black car had just cleared the crossing—made it by maybe ten seconds. Then, just as the middle face tried to turn again—Aaron squinted his eyes—and the woman with the shoulder-length white hair (a Beulah woman or a hippie woman or a Beulah woman turned hippie or a hippie woman turned Beulah—maybe just a woman) looked up from her digging and opened her mouth, the diesel blared like Gabriel and tumbled over the crossing.
Aaron pulled up, alone, and stopped. He turned off the motor and felt the pincers on the back of his neck release, as the graffiti-bedizened cars rocked by.
The Loneliest Village’s dead and gone—it’s with Jock Morrow in the grave.
Sixty-thou. Run it from the back bedroom.
No, not enough. Not nearly enough. The desert. Soaking up the sun. Lizard on a rock: roughly translates to letting the mind wander free.
One for yourself, one for your dreams.
What you expect from standing water.
Whom have they played?